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A STORY ABOUT A REAL MAN                                                                           89
that had lain on it, and stroked it with her hand. Her
eyes fell upon the bunch of flowers that had been forgotten
in the hurry. Several sprigs of hot-house lilac, pale and
wilted, like the inhabitants of this fugitive village who had
spent the winter in cold, damp dugouts. The young woman
picked up the flowers, inhaled the tender smell of spring,
so faint that it was barely perceptible amidst the fumes
and soot, flung herself on a bunk and burst into bitter tears.
The whole of the available population of the village
of Plavni came out to say farewell to their unexpected
guest. The aircraft had landed behind the forest on a
small, elongated lake, the ice of which, though melting
at the edges, was still strong and firm. There were no
roads to this lake. There was a track to it, which Grandad
Mikhail, Degtyarenko and Lenochka had trodden in the
soft, yielding snow an hour before. Along this track a
crowd of people were making for the lake, headed by the
boys of the village, with staid Seryonka, and Fedka,
bubbling over with enthusiasm, right in front. By right,
as an old friend who had found the airman in the forest,
Seryonka was walking solemnly in front of the stretcher,
laboriously pulling his feet, encased in the huge felt
boots left him by his father, out of the snow and sternly
scolding the other white-toothed, grimy-faced, fantasti-
cally ragged boys. Degtyarenko and Grandad, keeping in
step, carried the stretcher, while Lenochka walked on
the untramped snow by the side, now adjusting Alexei's
blankets, and now wrapping her scarf round his head.
Behind trailed the women, girls and the old folks, chat-
tering as they went.
At first the bright light reflected by the snow dazzled
Alexei. The fine spring day struck his eyes so forcibly
that he had to close them and he nearly swooned. Slightly
raising his eyelids he let his eyes get used to the light and
then gazed around him. A picture of the underground
village unfolded before him.
The old forest stood like a wall whichever way you
looked. The tops of the trees almost met overhead and
cast the ground below in semi-gloom. It was a mixed